Balancing the certainties of the past against an uncertain present is at the heart of Catholic education, says Joseph Kelly

Just before he went into the Paul VI Hall for his regular weekly audience last week, Pope Francis met with a group of Catholic educators from the UK, Ireland and the USA. The delegation was from Global Researchers Advancing Catholic Education (GRACE), a new international research project and community of practice focused on Catholic education that included key representatives from Saint Mary’s University, Twickenham.

His Holiness had prepared a brief but incisive written address that he handed to the delegates, before launching into a characteristically colourful off-the-cuff monologue about the importance of ‘roots’ – by which he meant ‘fidelity to tradition’ – in Catholic education.

Quoting the fifth century monk St Vincent of Lérins Pope Francis twice said to the delegation: ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate’ (which translates roughly as ‘progressing, consolidating with the years, developing with time, deepening with age’). This quote from St Vincent has been a favourite of Pope Francis – He mentioned it in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, and in a number of important speeches over recent years.

Another saint of the education sector, Cardinal John Henry Newman, expressed very similar sentiments when he said: “Build on ancient foundations and you will be safe”, though Newman’s remark was almost certainly a warning against any new experimentations in Catholic teachings rather than the synodality favoured by Pope Francis.

The impromptu address by Pope Francis to the GRACE delegation was both passionate and revealing, providing an unusually candid insight into Francis’ thinking, not just on education, but on the outlook and future of the Catholic Church as a whole.

For an institution with a past fixation with rigidness and immutability, many will welcome Francis’ notion that the solid roots of tradition are not the end of the story, but rather what enables us to explore human possibilities and develop as individuals.

“It is only through roots that we become people: not statues in a museum, like certain traditionalists, who are cold, stiff, rigid, who think that being prepared for life means living stuck to the roots,” said Pope Francis.

“This relationship with one’s roots is necessary, but we also need to move forward. And this is the true tradition: taking from the past to move forward. Tradition is not static: it is dynamic, aimed at moving forward,” he said.

Addressing such remarks to educators is particularly interesting because the tension between tradition, innovation and responding meaningfully to modern-day life is at the very heart of what Catholic educators do.

Like most Catholic institutions, the Catholic education sector trundled along relatively undisturbed until the 1950s and 60s when society, morals, and most things that had been taken for granted were upended by seismic changes in societal habits.

We all know that the Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII in an attempt to address and respond to many of the challenges thrown up by this new world. His untimely death in the midst of the deliberations left the more traditionally-minded Pope Paul VI with the unenviable task of making sense of all the discussions and delivering a series of formal Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations on the key themes debated.

When it came to Christian education, which lies at the root and beginning of all faith development, all that was managed was a brief, modest Decree, Gravissimum educationis, which was actually the very last document from the Council. The final text, which at just 3,900 words made it one of the shortest of the Council, was approved on 14th October 1965 by a fair majority, but it was not without its detractors.

Those who were there at the time have said that the more the theology of Catholic education was discussed, the less agreement there was about it!

Like many of the Second Vatican Council documents, there was a leaning towards describing existing things rather than suggesting new things, and recommendations tended to state the utterly obvious – in the case of education, we all have a right to be educated and Catholic schools must have suitably qualified teachers, decent premises and the means to pay their bills. There was also a reminder that different people have different talents, and parents have a role to play too.

However, what Gravissimum educationis did achieve was to plant the notion that a school is not so much and institution as a community, and that the Catholic school in particular was a community whose daily activities and responses were centred around Gospel values. This may sound obvious to us now, but it marked a clear turning away from the old view of a Catholic school as simply a place where one went to in order to learn information and knowledge, along with a rigid set of faith principles.

As Pope Francis said last week to the GRACE delegation: “We must break that idea of education which holds that educating means filling one’s head with ideas. That’s the way we educate automatons, cerebral minds, not people.

“Educating is taking a risk in the tension between the mind, the heart and the hands: in harmony, to the point of thinking what I feel and do; feeling what I think and do; of doing what I feel and think. It’s a balance.”

Francis’ idea of a balance, a tension even, between tradition and change gets to the heart of the challenges facing Catholic educators today. Over my decades in Catholic journalism I’ve visited numerous Catholic schools across the UK and Ireland. In their own way they were all unique but every one had essentially the same sign at the entrance gate, declaring that herein was whatever ‘Catholic school’. Talking to head teachers the discussion would often come down to that sign at the gate – what makes a Catholic school and, more importantly, what keeps a school Catholic when all within it is changing?

Far greater minds than mine have grappled with these questions, and the answers haven’t always been easy to find. Perhaps that was why Gravissimum educationis was the last gauntlet to be thrown down by Vatican II, and why we have been debating the nature of Catholic education vigorously ever since.

One of the most significant recent events relating to Catholic education occurred at Castel Gandolfo in 2015, when the World Congress Educating Today and Tomorrow, A renewing Passion brought together representatives of Catholic schools at every level from around the world to debate the nature of Catholic identity in our schools system.

This Congress, and the many subsequent meetings flowing from it, has led the Congregation for Catholic Education to issue a formal Instruction, The Identity of the Catholic School, For a Culture of Dialogue. Signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, congregation prefect, it is dated 25th January this year, but was only released by The Vatican on 29th March.

At 12,000 words this is fully intended to address in depth many of the issues that have been at the centre of the Catholic education debate in recent years.

The congregation was asked to write the document particularly “given cases of conflicts and appeals resulting from different interpretations of the traditional concept of Catholic identity by educational institutions,” Cardinal Versaldi said.

At the same time, it said, “a narrow Catholic school model” is not acceptable either. “In such schools, there is no room for those who are not ‘totally’ Catholic. This approach contradicts the vision of an ‘open’ Catholic school that intends to apply to the educational sphere the model of a ‘Church which goes forth’ in dialogue with everyone.”

The document insisted that Catholic education is not strictly catechetical, nor is it a “mere philanthropic work aimed at responding to a social need,” but is an essential part of the Church’s identity and mission.

Catholic schools do not limit enrollment or employment to Catholics alone since, as the Second Vatican Council said, part of their mission is to promote “the complete perfection of the human person, the good of earthly society and the building of a world that is more human.”

To reach that goal, the document said, Catholic schools must “practice the ‘grammar of dialogue,’ not as a technical expedient, but as a profound way of relating to others. Dialogue combines attention to one’s own identity with the understanding of others and respect for diversity.”

The Instruction concludes by emphasising that Catholic schools “constitute a very valid contribution to the evangelisation of culture, even in countries and cities where an adverse situation stimulates the use of creativity to find adequate paths,” because, as Pope Francis says, “to educate is always an act of hope.”

Which brings us neatly back to Pope Francis’ words to the GRACE delegation of Catholic educators in Rome last week.

“Educating is not saying purely rhetorical things; educating is making what is said meet reality,” Pope Francis told the delegation.

“Girls, boys, they have a right to make mistakes, but the educator accompanies them along the journey to direct these mistakes, so that they don’t become dangerous. The true educator is not frightened by mistakes, no: he or she accompanies, takes one by the hand, listens, dialogues. [An educator] doesn’t get scared, and waits.

“This is the human education. As you can see, there is an abyss between the legacy of the ‘macrocephalous’ education and education itself, which is this carrying forward and growing, this helping to grow. I thank you for this human approach to education. And onward, courage!”

Whilst the Instruction The Identity of the Catholic School, For a Culture of Dialogue doesn’t answer every dilemma confronting Catholic educationalists, it’s a very laudable attempt at getting beneath the veneer of the phrase ‘a Catholic Ethos’ an into the specifics of how we can define our schools as being ‘distinctly Catholic’. In dealing with such topics as the fundamental principles of Christian education in schools, the parent interface, witness of educators, the definition of a Catholic school, the role of diocesan bishop and parish priest and the many interpretations of the word ‘Catholic’, the Instruction makes a pretty good handout or primer for anyone contemplating a vocational career in Catholic education.

As Pope Francis has so eloquently pointed out, Catholic education is very much about exploring the tension between roots and change, between tradition and growth.

Consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate, this is tradition: we need to educate in tradition, but in order to grow,” the Pope concluded, repeating the words of St Vincent.

Balancing the certainties of the past against the ever-shifting demands of the present is indeed the challenge at the very heart of Catholic education.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and is founder of